There was a time in the mid-1980s when Madness really did seem like – as their song puts it – Yesterday’s Men. After emerging in the ska/2 Tone boom of the late 1970s, the hits had dried up. They looked like disillusioned, uninterested figures on their dwindling kids’ TV appearances and finally split up. What a difference three decades makes. Since re-forming in 1992, they’ve performed on the roof of Buckingham Palace and at the Olympics in recent years, and have become one of the most popular live draws on the circuit. Many among their massed crowd arrive sporting “Mad merch” items such as the Madness fez and inflatable saxophone.
The band’s turnaround has perhaps been a combination of people realising that their run of 21 Top 20 hits between 1979 and 1986 has few parallels in British pop, and also because – unlike many bands of this vintage – this feels like a still ongoing story. Although copper-bottomed classics still appear as regularly as London buses – and the lesser-played Cardiac Arrest makes a welcome reappearance here – their setlists are still laden with new material.
They may never again quite reach the dizzier heights of their initial surge, but newer songs NW5 and Mr Apples – about Camden and a Keith Vaz/Paul Flowers-type naughty public figure respectively – certainly hold their own among My Girl, Embarrassment, Baggy Trousers and the rest.
Current album Can’t Touch Us Now put them back in the Top Five, and both old and modern Madness songs are built on similar foundations: a bouncing pub piano, whiff of ska, cheekily parping horns, choruses that could be chanted on the Chelsea terraces and big wodges of both poignancy and slapstick. The band appear inside mock-up cells, trigger pantomime boos with images of policemen and saxophonist Lee Thompson hurtles around the stage in a wheelchair, leaping up to deliver his trademark rasping blasts. “He broke his ribs in two places,” explains singer Suggs. “The fridge and the radiator.”
Now in their 50s, they’re still Nutty Boys, but bring sage experience to the likes of charming love song You Are My Everything and the melancholy Blackbird – about Suggs’s fleeting Dean Street encounter with the ill-fated Amy Winehouse. In 2016 as in 1979, Madness are musical social historians of a changing, baffling world. Mumbo Jumbo addresses crumbling social services and political post-truths beneath images of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, while elsewhere they simply ask “Where did all the good times go?”
If anyone can bring them back – even if just for a couple of hours – it’s Madness. “Hang on to your Christmas hats!” yells the frontman as they head into a glorious home run – six classic singles, one after another, with more following during the encores. By the time they reach a triumphantly raucous Night Boat To Cairo, the stage has been invaded by dancers wearing Egyptian robes and fezzes and Suggs is trying to grasp the barmy wonderment of it all. “Manchester! Christmas! Beer! Madness!” he yells. Absolutely.